Two women who held senior positions with a Fort Lauderdale mental health clinic escaped convictions when a jury deadlocked on Medicare fraud charges against them.
The second time around, Lydia Ward and Nichole Eckert were not as lucky.
A Miami federal jury in Miami found them guilty last week of conspiring to defraud the taxpayer-funded Medicare program in the nation’s largest mental-health clinic racket, totaling $205 million.
Ward, 47, a Ph.D who served as the former program director of American Therapeutic Corp.’s Fort Lauderdale clinic, and Eckert, 35, the clinic’s one-time therapist, are now in custody and each faces up to 10 years in prison at their January sentencings.
At trial, the 12-person jury said it was unable to reach a unanimous health-care fraud conspiracy verdict against a third defendant, Hilario Morris. He had been convicted in the first trial of conspiring to pay kickbacks to residential home operators in exchange for providing patients to American Therapeutic.
Since Miami-based American Therapeutic’s seven-clinic chain was shuttered two years ago, about 35 defendants associated with the company have been charged and convicted of fleecing the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled – including the company’s owner, Lawrence Duran, of Miami. He is now serving 50 years in prison, the stiffest Medicare-fraud punishment in history.
Among others convicted in the elaborate scheme: Three psychiatrists, Mark Willner, of Weston, Alberto Ayala, of Coral Gables, and Alan Gumer, of Tamarac.
Gumer, who cooperated with the Justice Department, testified last spring against fellow doctors Willner and Ayala, who are serving 10-year prison sentences. They were convicted of altering diagnoses and medications of thousands of patients to make it look as if they qualified for group therapy sessions so that Medicare would pay fraudulent bills submitted by American Therapeutic.
At the latest trial ending in mid-November, the jury found that Ward and Eckert personally altered patient files and therapist notes to make it appear that patients were eligible for treatment of purported bipolar conditions, schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses.
Justice Department prosecutor Jennifer Saulino said the Fort Lauderdale clinic catered mostly to people with Alzheimer’s disease, addicts and alcoholics, bused from local assisted-living facilities. She said those types of patients could not have benefitted from the treatment.
Ward’s lawyer, Dennis Urbano, and Eckert’s attorney, Michael Tein, argued their clients were unaware of the fraud and provided legitimate therapy services.
But the jury, after last week’s deliberations, found them guilty.